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August 23, 2010

Huguenin: Bursting your team's title dream

We're less than two weeks away from the start of the season, and we've come not to praise your top 10 team but to bury it instead.

Mid- to late August is when everyone can dream big about the upcoming season. But our task today is to temper those expectations.

We'll look at the top 10 teams in the Rivals.com Preseason 120 Countdown and pinpoint the one position that is most likely to cause your team to fall short this fall. There will be mention of the biggest reason for fans to be optimistic, but we'll also tell you why you should be at least a little pessimistic, too.

1. ALABAMA
Biggest position of strength: Running back
Potential fatal position flaw: Cornerback
The buzz: Alabama's success last season was based on defense and special teams. This season, though, could be different. Alabama is having to replace nine-full time starters on defense and is breaking in a new punter, kicker and return man. The offense should be quite good, especially the running game with reigning Heisman winner Mark Ingram and backup Trent Richardson. But the defense obviously has some questions, most notably at cornerback, where the Tide lost their top three players (and each was drafted). Sophomores Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott are the likely starters, and each of the key backups is a newcomer: JC transfer DeQuan Menzie and true freshmen John Fulton and DeMarcus Milliner. Kirkpatrick made eight tackles last season; Scott redshirted after playing wide receiver as a true freshman in 2008. The Tide will have an all-new front seven, and a mistake by a linebacker or end could mean what should've been a 3-yard gain turns into a 12-yard run. A mistake by a corner, though, means what should've been a 13-yard gain turns into a 45-yard touchdown. Kirkpatrick and Scott have talent, and so do their backups. But the experience level is nil, and in a league as tough as the SEC, that is going to hurt. In addition, it's not as if the safeties are all that experienced; a veteran safety group could cover for some mistakes made by young corners, but that might be the case for the Tide. SS Mark Barron is the only full-time returning starter for the Tide, but FS Robert Lester played little last season -- eight tackles in eight games -- and the backup safeties are true freshmen who arrived on campus over the summer.
2. OHIO STATE
Biggest position of strength: Running back
Potential fatal position flaw: Wide receiver
The buzz: Ohio State looked impressive offensively in its Rose Bowl victory over Oregon. QB Terrelle Pryor looked as if he was given more freedom, and he made plays with his arm and with his legs. If he continues to play at that high level, the Buckeyes are in good shape because he has four potential feature backs to hand off to and a good line in front him. But the wide receivers bear watching. Junior DeVier Posey is a big-timer who should vie for all-league and even All-America honors. Dane Sanzenbacher is the No. 2 guy, though, and he seems more-suited to be a No. 3 or 4 guy; he had six TD catches last season, but two came against Toledo and two more against New Mexico State. The No. 3 guy? Good question, as no other wide receiver on the roster caught a pass last season. Duron Carter, who would've been a sophomore, has academic issues and is at a junior college trying to regain his eligibility. Senior Taurian Washington, who hasn't made a catch since 2007, is vying for the No. 3 job, as is redshirt freshman Chris Fields and true freshman Corey Brown, who has a nice mix of speed and size.
3. BOISE STATE
Biggest position of strength: Wide receiver
Potential fatal position flaw: Linebacker
The buzz: The Broncos are going to be extremely potent offensively, and in Austin Pettis and Titus Young, they have what might be the best receiving duo in the nation. Defensively, the line should be tough and the secondary stingy, even with the loss of CB Kyle Wilson, who was a first-round pick. That leaves linebacker. The Broncos frequently use a nickel package, and they have six linebackers vying for two starting spots. But for all that experience, they don't have a standout 'backer. That won't hurt them in the WAC. But this is a team that has its sights set much higher than just winning the WAC. Boise basically has a two-game schedule: vs. Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., on Sept. 6 and a home game against Oregon State on Sept. 25. Both those teams have studs at running back, and Boise's priority will be to stymie the run. Worth nothing is that while Boise shut down Oregon's powerful rushing attack last season, Fresno State (320 yards) and Nevada (242) ran all over the Broncos. And in Boise's last loss, the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl, TCU rumbled for 275 yards.
4. OREGON
Biggest position of strength: Guard
Potential fatal position flaw: Quarterback
The buzz: Oregon has potential All-America candidates at running back and along the offensive line; the Ducks also have a potential All-Pac-10 wide receiver. The defense looks good, too, especially in the back seven. The one spot where there's a question is quarterback. Had Jeremiah Masoli stayed on the straight and narrow, the Ducks would be in the mix for the national title. Without Masoli? They still have enough talent to win the league -- if they get competent quarterback play. Fifth-year senior Nate Costa looks like the front-runner for the job; he was set to start in 2008 before an injury opened the door for Masoli. Costa isn't as athletic as Masoli and isn't close to the same type of runner. But Costa is a better passer and conceivably could add another dimension to the offense. Costa is trying to hold off sophomore Darron Thomas, a big-time athlete who can do a lot of the same type of things as Masoli. But Thomas remains raw as a passer. The difference between competent quarterback play and inconsistent quarterback play is the difference between going to the Rose Bowl and going to the Holiday Bowl.
5. NEBRASKA
Biggest position of strength: Cornerback
Potential fatal position flaw: Quarterback
The buzz: Senior CB Prince Amukamara, who is from Phoenix, heads a solid group of corners. Amukamara has All-America potential, and his talent level stands out even on a defense that is filled with prime-time players. The Huskers also have enough talent on offense to have at least a solid unit -- if, like Oregon, they get competent quarterback play. But will they? Senior Zac Lee started last season, but he didn't play all that well. Injuries were a problem -- he had offseason surgery to repair a tendon in his throwing arm -- but so were the eight picks he threw in the Huskers' four losses (he threw two in their 10 wins). He also tossed 14 TD passes, but none came in the losses and he also threw for fewer than 200 yards in nine games. Were his problems the result of the injury or is he just not all that good? Lee is trying to hold off sophomore Cody Green and redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez; both have more upside but both also are vastly more inexperienced.
6. FLORIDA
Biggest position of strength: Defensive tackle
Potential fatal position flaw: Defensive end
The buzz: The Gators are the only team on this list whose biggest problem literally lines up next to its biggest asset. Florida's defensive tackle rotation has a chance to be the best in the nation; there are five veteran tackles who have started at least three games in their careers, and Florida also signed the nation's top two high school defensive tackles in February. But both starting ends are gone (both were second-round picks in the NFL draft) and there is no proven pass-rusher on the roster. Seniors Duke Lemmens and Justin Trattou are the expected starters at end, and they have a combined seven sacks -- all by Trattou -- in their careers. Junior William Green has good speed off the edge, but he has just 19 tackles and no sacks in his first two seasons, and his ability to hold up against the run also is a concern. The No. 4 end? Good question, though a lot is expected of true freshman Ronald Powell, the nation's No. 1 recruit.
7. TEXAS
Biggest position of strength: Cornerback
Potential fatal position flaw: Guard
The buzz: Texas' starting cornerback tandem of Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown is the best in the nation; both could be first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. But things aren't as good with the duo at guard. Texas coaches have made it know that the Longhorns will be more effective running the ball this season; to that end, they have changed some blocking schemes and there will be more straight-ahead blocking this season. The Longhorns may not have a superstar running back, but there is enough talent at the position for Texas to have an above-average rushing attack (160 yards-plus per game) -- assuming the interior of the line does its job. The projected starters in the interior had been two seniors, including holdover starter Michael Huey at guard, and a junior. But senior G Tray Allen has an injured foot, and redshirt freshman Mason Walters is going to get the starting nod. Huey has lacked consistency and needs to bear down for his final go-round with the Longhorns. Walters has all sorts of potential, but the combo of him and new starting C David Snow bears watching. The first two games are gimmes (Rice and Wyoming), but then come contests against Texas Tech, UCLA, Oklahoma and -- after a week off -- Nebraska, so we'll know by mid-October if the interior has come together.
8. IOWA
Biggest position of strength: Defensive end
Potential fatal position flaw: Center and guard
The buzz: Iowa is a throwback of team of sorts. The Hawkeyes don't do anything fancy; they just line up and try to beat the guy across from them, no matter if they're on offense or defense. The defensive line should provide a lot of beatings this season. Adrian Clayborn might be the best end in the nation, and bookend Broderick Binns is solid, as are both starting tackles. But the Hawkeyes' offensive line has some issues, and those issues could prevent the Hawkeyes from truly competing for the Big Ten title. Sophomore T Riley Reiff, who played guard last season, should contend for All-Big Ten honors, and senior G Julian Vandervelde should be fine, as well. But who will man the other guard spot and who will play center? Again, this isn't some kind of finesse offense; this is a smashmouth group, so if the line struggles, the offense as a whole is going to struggle. The one potential positive to all of this is that coach Kirk Ferentz places a high priority on tough line play and does a lot of hands-on work with his linemen. His son, James Ferentz, is vying with senior Josh Koeppel for the starting job at center. Junior Adam Gettis and sophomore Cody Hundertmark are battling for Reiff's old guard spot. The rebuilt line won't be tested until Game 3, when the Hawkeyes visit Arizona. But that's an Arizona team that's breaking in two new starters at defensive tackle and three new starters at linebacker. If Iowa struggles on the ground against the Wildcats, that bodes ill for the rest of the season.
9. VIRGINIA TECH
Biggest position of strength: Running back
Potential fatal position flaw: Defensive end
The buzz: For the first time in a while -- maybe forever? -- there are more questions about the Hokies' defense than the Hokies' offense. The offense is loaded at the skill positions, and the tailback duo of Ryan Williams and Darren Evans might be the nation's best. But Tech returns just four full-time starters on defense, and one of those, LB Barquell Rivers, seems likely to miss at least the season opener because of a ruptured quadriceps tendon suffered during the spring. The line has just one starter returning, coaches are bemoaning the lack of depth at tackle and the Hokies don't have any proven ends. Junior Chris Drager and senior Steven Friday seem the likely starters at end in the opener, with redshirt freshmen James Gayle and J.R. Collins and true freshman Zach McCray also vying for time. Drager and Friday have a combined 44 tackles and six sacks in their careers. Coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the business and, normally, he would be able to tweak some schemes to perhaps mask some deficiencies at end. But an inexperienced group of linebackers makes that a tougher task.
10. TCU
Biggest position of strength: Running back
Potential fatal position flaw: Defensive end
The buzz: The Horned Frogs had one of the nation's best ends last season in Jerry Hughes, who was an NFL first-round pick. Hughes was the standout on a unit that finished first in the nation in total defense and sixth in scoring defense. Seven starters return to that defense, and the only starter TCU is going to have trouble replacing is Hughes. The other starting end, Wayne Daniels, returns; coaches are high on Daniels, but can he provide the same type of pass rush? He had 5.5 sacks and one quarterback hurry last season, but that came with opponents focused on Hughes and constantly double-teaming him. Can Daniels make the jump to All-Mountain West end? As for who actually takes Hughes' starting spot, sophomore Ross Forrest, junior Braylon Broughton and redshirt freshman Stansly Maponga are in the mix. Broughton looks the part of a star (6 feet 6/272 pounds) but hasn't really done anything on the field (nine tackles in 14 games over two seasons). Forrest is a former walk-on who made one tackle in last season's opener before redshirting with an injury; he didn't make any tackles as a true freshman in 2008.

Oh, man, I can't stop laughing

In separate interviews recently, Boise State president Bob Kustra and athletic director Gene Bleymaier said they will ask the NCAA to mandate home-and-home football series.

Seriously. They said that.

In separate interviews with Matt Hayes of the Sporting News and Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, Bleymaier was especially outspoken.

"I think we've really dropped the ball as an organization. The NCAA could mandate this at any time," he told Dodd.

And Kustra, who made news earlier this summer for some disparaging remarks about archrival Idaho's fan base, told Dodd this: "There is a fairly compelling case to be made that the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10 over the years have controlled the scheduling. All the large conferences ... There's an overwhelming number of home games for the big guys but no home-and-home. ... We want to propose to the NCAA a mandated home-and-home scheduling arrangement for I-A non-conference football games. Why should Boise State go to Georgia, but more than likely they're not going to return it?"

Well, you certainly have to admire their chutzpah, but their statements lead me to ask this: How dumb are these guys?

The "big guys," as Kustra calls them, are the big guys because of the free-market system. The Alabamas, Floridas, Ohio States, Oklahomas, Penn States and Texases of the world do control the scheduling, and the reason, Bob and Gene, is because of economics.

Asking the NCAA to force schools of that nature to play at Boise State -- and San Jose State and New Mexico State and Eastern Michigan and Kent State and Louisiana-Monroe and Florida International and ... well, you get the idea -- has about as much chance of happening as Utah changing its mind and moving to the WAC instead of the Pac-10.

Grid bits

Last Monday, Sam Richardson committed to Iowa State. A day later, Sam Richardson committed to the Cyclones. Say what? Yep, Iowa State has two commitments from players names Sam Richardson. One, the first to commit, is a cornerback from League City (Texas) Clear Springs; the other is a quarterback from Winter Park (Fla.) High, an Orlando suburb. Having two players with the same name isn't as uncommon as you might think. Michigan State signed two players named Chris Rucker in 2007, and Ohio State signed a Corey Brown in 2009 and another this February. At Michigan State, the Ruckers were differentiated by their middle initials -- one was Chris L., the other Chris R. -- and at Ohio State, the coaches call one Corey Brown "Pittsburgh" (because he is from that area) and the other "Philadelphia" (because he is from the Philly suburbs).

Tennessee paid $750,000 to get out of a two-year series with North Carolina and instead has signed a one-year deal with Buffalo, which will play in Knoxville next season. The flipside, of course, is that the $750,000 will be dwarfed by the revenue the Vols make from that home game against Buffalo. (And, no, Bob and Gene, there will be no return game in Buffalo.) To prove he hasn't lost his ability to take a poke at the Vols -- even if he can't beat them like he used to at Florida -- South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier chimed in from afar on his weekly radio show: "Golly, times have changed when Tennessee doesn't want to play North Carolina in football because they're too good for them. That's kind of amazing right there. We're not going to bail out from playing North Carolina [in the 2013 season] the way Tennessee did."

Staying with Spurrier, he seems mighty serious about trying to light a fire under junior QB Stephen Garcia -- or get everyone prepared for Garcia's benching. In a Thursday scrimmage last week, true freshman QB Connor Shaw opened with the first team and Spurrier later said Shaw definitely would play in the Sept. 2 season opener against Southern Miss. "Statistically, he has been the best quarterback on the team in every scrimmage, so that's where we are with that," Spurrier said of Shaw.

Michigan's secondary already looked bad; then, projected starting CB Troy Woolfolk was lost to a season-ending leg injury. Sophomore J.T. Floyd seems set at one corner, while senior James Rogers (a converted wide receiver) sophomore Teric Jones (a converted running back who was at safety at the beginning of fall camp) and true freshmen Courtney Avery and Cullen Christian are vying to replace Woolfolk. The Wolverines open with Connecticut, which has a pedestrian passing attack. But Game 2 is against a Notre Dame team that now seems likely to throw it 40-plus times against the Wolverines.

Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson was more than a little peeved when Fresno State and Nevada left his league for the Mountain West, saying they had "betrayed" the WAC and were "selfish." Funny, you didn't hear Benson saying anything negative about BYU last week when it seemed apparent BYU would leave the MWC and put all its sports except football in the WAC.

Staying with the MWC/WAC story, Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes posted an open letter to Aggies fans on the school's athletic website saying Utah State had been offered the first chance to move from the WAC to the MWC but declined. Fresno and Nevada then eagerly accepted their invitations from the MWC. In the letter, Barnes talked about Utah State being "committed" to the WAC as the reason the school turned down the invitation. That's all fine and good, but the decision has huge ramifications, not the least of which is that Utah State now risks being even more irrelevant nationally, which is a shame considering the Aggies' solid basketball program.

A news conference is scheduled for today at Arkansas' Razorback Stadium whereby a group will announce that starting this fall, the Burlsworth Trophy will be awarded to a player who began his college career as a walk-on. It will be named after former Hogs star guard Brandon Burlsworth, who went from walk-on to All-America honoree in the late 1990s. Burlsworth was a third-round pick in the 1999 draft by the Indianapolis Colts, but was killed less than two weeks after the draft when his car drifted across the center line and was struck head-on by a tractor-trailer near Carrolton, Ark. Burlsworth wore black horn-rimmed glasses under his helmet and was a punishing run blocker who earned a masters degree in business before his death.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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